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Hands-on with iOS 7: Taking a bridge-burning leap, multitasking still a disappointment

Sections: Features, Hands On / First Looks, iPad, iPad mini, iPhone, iPhone OS, SDK and hacks, iPhone/iPod touch/iPad, iPod touch, Opinions and Editorials, Originals

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In spite of my misgivings about being an early adopter of anything as important as a major operating system upgrade, curiosity got the better of me, and I took the plunge and installed iOS 7 on Tuesday, six days after the system’s public release.

Installation went smoothly enough, although it took a lot longer than I had budgeted for, since I had to first download and install the latest version of iTunes for compatibility with my Mac. That, along with doing a global backup of the iPad and the upgrade download itself (two hours) took about 3-1/2 hours total over my not very speedy rural wireless broadband connection. Still, the essentially trouble-free, low-hassle upgrade process was another reminder of why I stick with Apple devices.

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As I think I’ve noticed before with iOS version updates, I had significantly more free memory after than I had prior to the upgrade—some 7-1/2 GB compared with 5-1/2 GB noted after the backup run.

As I had anticipated, based on the many reviews I’ve read over the past week or so, I don’t like the new multitasking interface. Indeed, I dislike it even more than I had imagined I would. I took a fair bit of stick from readers for expressing my deductive opinion—based on reading many, many iOS 7 reviews and user impressions—that multitasking was going to be worse with the new operating system than it was with iOS 6.

This is a pretty big deal for me. I’m a heavy user of multitasking, and I keep a lot of apps open simultaneously (just did a random count, and currently, there are 20). I was mistaken in my apprehension that the four finger upward swipe to toggle the app switching interface had gone missing, based on the fact that every review I’d read referred to a double-pump of the mechanical Home Button and not one mentioned the gesture. Does no one except me actually use the swipe method? I can’t recall ever using the Home Button for switching between open apps since the swipe gesture was introduced. I typically do literally dozens of app switches a day, and would be concerned about the service life of the Home Button were I using it that way. In fact, the swipe gesture to summon the open app ribbon was hands-down my favorite new feature when it arrived, and it proved an enabler for doing a lot more production work on the iPad than I had done previously. Thankfully, it’s still there, but the amount of horizontal scrolling one is now obliged to do with iOS 7 is immensely annoying, tiresome, and inefficient, as I had anticipated from reports. With the app icons now so widely-spaced to accommodate the thumbnails, it’s a very long scroll from app 1 to app 20 — much slower than with the efficient, closely-packed, icon ribbon in iOS 6. The thumbnails I could happily live without. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but it’s definitely not an improvement in my estimation, and after having worked with it for several days, I stand by my formerly presumptive, now empirical contention that what passes for multitasking in iOS 7 is even worse than it was in iOS 6.

As for the general look of iOS 7, it’s also going to take some getting used to. To my sense of aesthetics, some apps look better (Safari, for instance), while others (one example being a calculator I’m partial to: PC Calc Lite) look worse. I think I like the new mini progress bars on tabs in Safari better than the big one in the address field that I’ve never been particularly fond of.

Unfortunately, there are things about the facelifted Safari I don’t like that have nothing to do with the new look. It detest the way it opens the Favorites page every time you summon the keyboard to copy or paste a URL from the address field. This, of course, involves extra unnecessary taps and slows things down even more when switching apps. And speaking of browser woes, while Chrome at least doesn’t impose the Favorites page foolishness, it won’t let you select or paste from/into Bing search keyword fields (Bing works fine in Safari and Sleipnir). In Chrome, the insertion cursor and the Loupe appear, but no menu to select an action. This seems to be a Chrome or Bing issue in iOS, and one can use Google, of course, but it’s more tiresome bugginess.

While I’m at it, I truly loath the new little progress indicator circles in the App Store Updates screen. The iOS 6 motif of a progress bar in the app icon worked for me. Seems like changing stuff for the sake of changing stuff, which in fairness is a lot of what iOS 7 is about.

I burned up about an hour sleuthing why I had no sound output after the upgrade. It turned out that the install had activated the “Mute” button in the Control Center, and the problem was cured with a single tap, once I determined what the problem was.

As for speed, I needn’t have worried. iOS 7 seems to be about as lively as iOS 6 on my getting-long-in-the-tooth iPad 2. On the other hand, battery life appears to be suffering modestly. Gizmodo has some helpful ideas on how to mitigate that issue.

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Am I happy that I chose to upgrade this soon? Sort of, at least in some ways, but not with a lot of enthusiasm. It don’t hate iOS 7, but I don’t like it as much as I did iOS 6. I just did a quick review of the marquee new features in iOS 7 on Apple’s Web Page, and not one of them shouts out “gotta have it” to me. My iOS upgrade wishlist remained pretty much unaddressed in this upgrade, alas. If downgrading was an option, I would seriously consider it. But that’s not an open alternative.

With my Macs over the past 20-plus years, I have almost always installed new Mac OS and OS X versions on a separate hard drive partition, keeping my existing and proven old System intact until I was absolutely sure I was happy with the upgrade. Indeed, I currently have both OS X 10.8 and 10.6 installed on my MacBook (I skipped Lion altogether), and after using Mountain Lion for several months, I gradually reverted to Snow Leopard for pretty much everything except checking out software that demands a later system version. I like 10.6 better, and it does stuff that I find functionally useful, such as being able to run Power PC Carbon legacy apps.

Unfortunately, you can’t partiton iOS device drives, so dual booting iOS versions isn’t an option, even if Apple still lets one install iOS 6, which they apparently won’t. TIME Techland’s Matt Peckham notes that that upgrading to iOS 7 is a one-way trip, citing an International Business Times report that if you try to downgrade from iOS 7 to iOS 6, iTunes will show an error message, indicating that devices running on the public release of iOS 7 are not eligible for that specific firmware build.

The Register’s Jasper Hamill says that unlike with the developer beta of iOS 7 that left the option of retreating back to iOS 6, with the release of the iOS 7 final, Apple has stopped “signing” its older firmware. Without a signature, the older operating system won’t install. Techland’s Packham advises that if you’re still running iOS 6 and pondering an upgrade to iOS 7, make sure you’re ready to make the leap, because for better or worse, there’s no going back. Good advice. If you’re happy with the service you’re getting with iOS 6, I would suggest there’s no hurry, unless there’s some new iOS feature that you. App compatibility shouldn’t be a problem with iOS 6 for some time yet.

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  • Lee

    Regarding your issue with the multitask scroll speed, if you swipe the icons rather than the large screen images it scrolls much faster. Definitely as fast as ios 6 if not faster.

  • Dan Hamilton

    FYI – When multi-tasking, if you scroll through apps using the app icons at the bottom of the screen instead of the thumbnails of the apps, the scrolling speed is much faster.

  • Rick

    You are confusing APP SWITCHING with Multitasking. Two diff concepts. And i switch apps literally hundreds of times a day. No home button problems. And you said you have 20 apps open simultaneously SO WHAT. And besides they are just the last 20 apps used they are not open simultaneously. Put all your most used apps on the front page and then you can get to all of them with one click. And i had 99 most recently used apps in my app switcher.

  • immovableobject

    I don’t have an iPad but on my iPhone, I find that when switching apps, it is significantly faster to scroll the icons rather than the thumbnails.

  • Josh

    I used to look forward to new iPhone models, until the 5. Somehow the taller screen & ultra-lite body didn’t appeal to me, neither in pictures or in real life… so I stuck with my 4s.

    I used to look forward to OS upgrades too… but nothing about iOS7 appeals to me visually, and none of the functionality improvements are of interest… so I’m sticking with iOS6.

    There was a time when I was eager to be on the cutting edge of iPhone technology. Now I’m looking forward to being the guy with the antique iPhone running obsolete software, reminding the fanboys how good it used to be, and how far Apple has drifted. Alas, fanboys never admit defeat… but deep down inside, they’ll know.

  • Darwin

    What an idiotic article.